It was hard to find anyone at Veteran’s Historical Plaza who was not a veteran themselves or directly related to someone in service to our country at the city’s annual Veteran’s Day program Friday morning.
Under a white tent put up in case overhead clouds threatened to open up and rain on those gathered, speakers talked about the importance of patriotism and gratitude.
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Hundreds filled the grassy area beyond the flags of every service branch, a sea of folding chairs filled and people as far as you could see standing on the perimeter and filling the areas near the fountain at the end of the block. Many wore their uniforms, or clothing and caps bearing the name of their units and service affiliations. Others simply bedecked themselves in red, white and blue.
Retired Naval Officer Duane Harte, in dress blues, emceed the event. J.D. Kennedy, a member of the American Legion, asked for remembrance of the prisoners of war and those missing in action. A single table with an empty chair stood at the corner of the stage, the plate bearing lemon for the bitterness of the soldier’s plight and salt for the tears of those missing their loved one.
Mayor Marsha McLean, whose son recently retired as a Major from the Marine Corps, thanked the crowd for their support, noting that the number of people attending the event grow every year.
“We live in the greatest nation in the world and our flags are flying proud for that,” she said. “It’s due to all of you here today who have served, all of those who are serving and all of those who will serve to make sure that our freedom is preserved. We will prevail, I know that.”
After the changing of the flags by members of the Knights of Columbus, the Little Ladiez performed the National Anthem and members of the Valencia ROTC did a rifle drill.
But the most moving of all presentations was the keynote by Captain Ed Colley, who teaches the ROTC classes for the Hart District and shared some intensely personal observations.
Colley (right, with WWII hero Tony Marincola) joined the U.S. Army after his high school graduation in 1975 and spoke of the cold shoulder offered returning veterans returning from Viet Nam – and how that attitude has undergone an “enormous sea change” over the last four decades, especially since the events of September 11, 2001.
He credited the public’s pressure on the government to provide adequate protective equipment when troops are sent overseas and shared the reaction of his two sons who served in Iraq in 2005 when they received care packages from people they had never met.
“While they appreciated the sentiment, they found it was a little embarrassing and felt there were others whose service was more meaningful,” he said.
“We’ve seen the benefits change and at the end of Viet Name, veterans benefits began to be tailored as an inducement for young people to enlist. And the national dialog began swinging back to seeing the importance of providing for the legitimate needs of all veterans,” he added.
“Thirty years ago, many veterans suffered real ailments most likely related to their exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange,” he explained. “Most were denied medical treatments by the Veterans Administration because they could not prove a link between their services and the medical issues they faced.
“Today, there has been a 180-degree shift,” he continued. “The VA now presumes that these problems are caused by Agent Orange and help is available.”
Colley went on to note that, while the national change in attitude was therapeutic, the local support of troops’ families is treasured.
“We are here in the Veterans Historical Plaza, this place which honors every veteran was created throught the work and partnership of a great many people,” he said.
He went on to explain that initially, there were concerns that the park could be the target of graffiti, but such has not been the case.
“As it turns out, this place is held in such high esteem by everyone that no such mischief has taken place,” he said.
Returning to his personal recollection, Colley added some context.
“Our son, Private First Class Stephen Colley had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injury,” he said. “He told the medical staff he could not sleep and had persistent thoughts of suicide, but his plea for help was simply ignored.
“Because of the disjointed delivery of health care to our troops, he was sent home, alone, with directions to use a powerful mind-altering narcotic. After Stephen took his own life, the officer investigating this tragedy on behalf of the Army concluded that the proximate cause of his death was the failure of the military system to provide any meaningful care for this soldier in distress.”
Colley said that he shared their family’s tragedy for a reason.
“Very few people in our community know these details,” he said. “Most people just knew he took his own life. But there hasn’t been a person who has indicated to me, either in thoughts or actions, that his service was any less heroic, or less meaningful. We are all humbled and honored by this unbelievable support we receive from this great community and by the way you shared the pain of our loss.”
Santa Clarita’s support of veterans and their families is also evident in its structures and memorials, which offer comfort to the number of Gold Star families that continues to grow. The Rotary Clubs have constructed a gazebo and garden dedicated to the military at the Santa Clarita sports complex; NorthPark Community Church has an Honor Court on its central walkway and the city recently dedicated the Fallen Warriors Bridge on the Cross-Valley Connector.
In addition, Colley mentioned the recent launch of Habitat for Heroes, an effort to blend volunteers and corporate support to rebuild and rehabilitate homes for returning veterans as a show of gratitude.
“The College district seeks out veterans and helps them use the benefits they have earned,” he continued. “We have several chapters of veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Blue Star Mothers and Prayers Angels for the Military provide support and we are the home of a new group, Tempered Steel, which educates youth and breaks down stereotypes using the voice of the disabled and disfigured veterans.”
“Honoring and respecting our veterans is not a zero sum game,” he said. “It is important to the extent that we can go back and honor all veterans. So today, we gather on this very special day to honor those who have beaten back tyranny, fascism, communism and now, terrorism. I am proud beyond measure to have had the opportunity to work with so many brave, honorable and hard-working men and woman of integrity who have sacrified so much to guarantee the freedoms we enjoy.”
The event concluded with recognition for each branch of service, for the parents and families of those in service and a group picture of all veterans in attendance.